A jury has ordered Shell Oil Company to pay the City of Atwater a total of $63 million in damages in a groundwater pollution suit.
The decision, reached Friday after a four-month trial in Merced County Superior Court, awarded Atwater $53 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages, according to a news release from the city.
The lawsuit stemmed from the highly toxic chemical 1,2,3-Trichloropropane (TCP), which can pose a risk to public health and can contaminate drinking water.
A well in Atwater tested positive again for high levels of TCP in July, causing the city to send out notices to its residents.
TCP is waste product from making plastic that for years was added to fumigants that farmers put in the soil to kill tiny worms called nematodes.
According to the city, Shell marketed a nematicide —a chemical used to kill those worms — in the Valley for decades, but didn’t reveal it contained TCP.
City officials say Shell’s nematicide was widely applied to agricultural lands around Atwater, which led to the city’s water being contaminated. The money won in the court case will go to cleaning Atwater’s drinking water and ongoing maintenance.
Atwater Mayor Paul Creighton said in the release the city is grateful to the jury for making the decision. “The city simply cannot afford the costs of removing TCP from the city’s water, and the ratepayers should not have to bear the cost burden of the cleanup due to the actions of Shell Oil Company,” he said.
“Up and down the San Joaquin Valley, clean drinking water is an issue far too many cities must deal with. Thankfully for this verdict, we can ensure that our residents have a safe, reliable source of drinking water, and not have to face the same issues that far too many of our fellow valley residents have to face.”
According to the release, in Merced County it’s estimated that more than 1 in 10 people do not have access to clean drinking water.
The Shell Corporation did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Cities like Livingston, Visalia and Clovis have struggled with similar problems in their drinking water.
The city of Clovis won its more than three-month-long civil trial against Shell Oil in 2016 over the cleanup of the same toxic chemical found in wells around the.